This handsome old town sits strategically at the confluence of the Meuse and the ribbon-like Sambre rivers. Presiding over it are the remains of an enormous fortress, which are dramatically draped across a steep and rocky hill. The sense of power continues today, for Namur is home to the Walloon parliament – whose headquarters lie just below the great fortifications.
Counterbalancing that officialdom is a strong university presence. Namur is a bustling student town with an almost tangible joie de vivre, 10 lively little museums and a host of cafés and restaurants. It is a universal fact that politicians like to dine well and students need to eat cheaply – consequently the epicurean spectrum is wide and generous.
First stop on any tasting tour of Namur should be Maison Saint-Aubain (0032 8122 1534; saint-aubain.com), a foodie landmark at Rue de l'Ange 11, on the main shopping street. Don't just gaze at the large windows of this deli and butcher, step inside to marvel at the spread of local goods and sample some of the Walloon cheeses on sale – from the dairies of Rochefort, Floreffe, Maredsous, Orval and more.
The emblem of Namur is a little grey snail. That's because this is both a great delicacy and a good source of income – snails being zealously bred in the vicinity. This and much more about local gastronomy you'll learn at Gau (0032 8126 2638; gaunamur.be), an enterprise promoting Namur products. The company's shop is strikingly located opposite the town's lovely old belfry, a short walk from the main shopping area. Here, along with bottled snails, you'll find honeys, jams, strawberry products from nearby Wépion, Bister mustard, local beers; Le Gorli fruit wine and even wine from some of the 15 small vineyards in the region – Domaine du Chenoy (0032 8174 6742; domaine-du-chenoy.com) at Emines a few kilometres north being one of the best regarded.
Head over to picturesque Marché aux Légumes to assess whether Belgian wines could possibly be as good as the beers. Set in the shadow of the graceful old church of St Jean-Baptiste and fringed with cafés, the old vegetable market is where local residents congregate for drinks. For atmosphere and a great sense of history call in at Au Ratintot (00 324 7237 4290; ratintot.be) at Marché aux Légumes 1. The year 1616 is etched above the doorway, but it is thought that the building actually occupies the site of an even older tavern.
To sample more from the talented brewers of Belgium, move on to Le Chapitre (0032 8122 6960) set opposite St Aubin's cathedral at Place du Chapitre. This laid-back bar with wooden benches and mustard-coloured walls offers about 50 (mostly local) beers on a blackboard menu as well as La Chouffe on tap. Across the way is an enterprise unique in Belgium. Grafé Lecocq is a thoroughly modern outfit operating as an old-fashioned négociant or wine dealer. French appellation wine is imported here, aged in oak barrels in the crypt of the cathedral and then bottled and finally sold under the Grafé Lecocq label, the maturing process having taken about two years to complete.
Of course, dining options are plentiful in Namur. Les Tanneurs (0032 8124 0024; tanneurs.com) at Rue des Tanneries 13 is a local favourite. Having fallen into near dereliction in the 1970s, this striking old tannery building was rescued and painstakingly transformed into a 32-bedroom boutique hotel and two restaurants: Le Grill des Tanneurs offers good-value bistro fare (three course menu €28); L'Espièglerie presents fine dining: its four-course "Balade" menu – featuring mains such as beautifully presented lamb with basil and tomato tapenade – costs €46. Over in the bustle of Place Chanoine Descamps, adjacent to the old vegetable market, La Petite Fugue (0032 8123 1320; lapetitefugue.be) has been winning accolades for its inventive menus based on fresh regional produce and costing from €30 for three courses. Perhaps best of all is Cuisinémoi (0032 8122 9181; cuisinemoi.be) just behind the Walloon parliament building at Rue Notre Dame 11. This chic little establishment has had a Michelin star since 2010 and offers a very delicately balanced set menu every night based on the very best seasonal produce (three courses for €40) along with carefully selected wines to accompany each dish (€18).
The joker of Namur
Jean-Bietrumé Picar was a convivial, irreverent soul. He was born in the 1700s and became famed for his daring jokes and courage in mocking the Dutch forces occupying Namur at the time. The Hucorne-Fronville family of chocolate makers and pastry chefs adopted Bietrumé in 1954, reinventing him as a fudge-like sweet made of crème fraîche and
hazelnuts or chocolate – his likeness stamped on the packaging, seen here with owner Etienne de Hucorne (above). The family has two shops, de Hucorne Fronville chocolate shop (selling Bietrumé caramels) at Rue de Fer 5 and La Maison des Desserts pâtisserie and tearoom at Rue Haute Marcelle 17 (0032 8122 7451; maison-des-desserts.be).